John Hodgman, comedian, author and generally knower-of-all-things, has a live comedy show that you probably have never heard of, because by design it is a secret. A Secret Society that is. Members meet in the basement of Union Hall in Brooklyn and are sworn to secrecy about the comedy, guests, song or anything else that might happen… or so I’ve been told. The only reason I was given this coveted information is because for the first time, Hodgman is opening his society to the public in “A Secret Society Meeting & Public Holiday Spectacle” on December 18th in New York. Though I’m not an official member, I was given a little insight into the secrecies of this society (which is NOT A CULT) when I spoke to the man himself by phone.
Hodgman: This is John Hodgman. Is that Monique?
This is Monique. How are you?
Good. It was fated that we should speak.
I mean, I found out a few days ago that we were going to talk and I accept that destiny happily and I’m glad that it has come to be.
As am I. Well, I will ask you right off the bat, if it’s not too much of a secret, can you tell us about Secret Society?
I noticed that you said, “Right off the bat” and right off the bat I have to tell you that using a sports metaphor of that kind will not get me to reveal my secrets. Next question.
Dang it. Okay. Well if it’s not a secret, can you tell us what you’ll be serving for dinner at Secret Society?
It is a secret, but to be very plain, no dinner will be served.
Oh, I was under the impression that it would be.
I am sorry that you were… who gave you that impression? Who has spoken to you about my secret meeting?!
It’s a secret, so I can’t tell you.
Are you a member of that rival secret society that we hate?
I might be, but if I told you, I’d have to kill you.
You know that our secret society has a rival secret society. They call themselves “The Magnificent Voles.”
Where does that come from?
You would have to ask them about their legends, rituals, secret passwords and grips. I will have nothing to do with those people. But I think they’ve been spreading misinformation, so let me clarify a few basic things. First of all, Secret Society is not a cult. It is neither “a cult,” nor “occult,” nor “o’cult,” which means nothing, but is a slur against the Irish.
But don’t all cults say that they’re not a cult?
Yes, but in this case, I’m telling you the truth. Even though I am in no way obliged to tell you the truth as you have not been initiated into full personhood via my Secret Society, but this is what I’m trying to allow for everyone to enjoy by opening the figurative doors to the Secret Society to the general public on December 18th. Now Monique, I’ll be very straightforward with you, this secret society is no more than a gathering of friends twice or sometimes three times a month in a basement below a bocce court in a parts of Brooklyn at Union Hall. I began organizing this secret society just about two years ago so that I could develop new things to say on stage and learn what it is I had to say ever since the world did not end on December 21st, 2012, as I, and the Mayans had predicted.
So does that mean by coming to it we can become initiated into the sole personhood?
Yes. And Monique, first of all, I honestly believe that you are a full human being. I do not mean to suggest otherwise. I was being a little silly there, even though you have never taken the secret oath in a basement with me, I still believe that you are a full human being.
But there have been many misunderstandings about The Secret Society, largely caused by the fact that it sells out. It’s a very small room and it sells out almost immediately. And so, I decided that for this year-end holiday ritual, we would hold our meeting in a space that would be large enough to accommodate anyone who wished to attend. And that space that we have found has been listed on the website’s ticket page. I do not know whether I am allowed to reveal the location, but it is findable, easily via the website where the tickets are being sold.
Are you allowed to talk about who some of your guests might be?
Oh no. No. Never. Completely, unfacetiously, the whole point of Secret Society was for me to be able to go into a basement and talk to people about whatever was on my mind, so I could figure out what was on my mind and talk to some friends who might come and have a conversation with me on the little stage or do a performance. The original idea was germinated in my head by Mike Birbiglia, that is why in our cosmology, we call Birbiglia ‘The Great Germinator.’ When I realized that I wanted to continue doing standup performance after my Ragnarok special, which was my Netflix special, when the world did not end and I had to come up with new things to talk about, he had suggested I do a residence as he does at Union Hall. It turned out to be the most remarkably, creatively productive and frankly fun time I’ve ever had in the basement to be sure, and largely in my whole wide and varied and strange career. It made me appreciate that there are new things to explore in the darkness of a basement.
Now, I can neither confirm nor deny that previous guests have included… well, who have you heard of?
I don’t know if I’ve heard of who has been on the show.
Yeah, that’s because everyone who attends Secret Society is sworn to secrecy.
Right. Which is really remarkable that it’s still going so strong when it’s so secretive.
Yeah, well the fact is that we all have a good time down there and the guests have included people from the worlds of music and comedy. I do not… I want to honor the agreement I made with them when they agreed to come into a basement and talk with me, by not revealing who they are.
And similarly, the point of Secret Society is over time the people who were attending the show would come to trust that I would give them a good show, whatever it was, and that we would all have fun together in a fellowship of friends, but that would do something that friends do not do. We would keep each other’s secrets. And I’ve said many things in that basement that I was scared would be revealed, but no one has ever broken their silence.
When you were a kid, were you into these conspiracy theories and secret society types of things?
Yeah. I mean one of the big influences in my life was a book called Big Secrets by William Poundstone, which was one of the great paperback popular encyclopedias of fascinating weird facts that I loved to read when I was a teenager. Big Secrets reported to reveal the secret behind the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, the secret places in Disneyland and also the secrets of the Freemasons, which as you know, is one of the world’s oldest paternal organizations that we call a secret society, because it has its secrets.
When did you figure out to combine this stuff and comedy?
Well, you know, I’ve always been fascinated with the esoteric and weird. I’ve always been fascinated by popular culture, but even more so with popular subculture. In my first book, The Areas of My Expertise I made quite a few references to secret societies and also the various competing Big Foot organizations and of course my fake history of the very real subculture of Hoboism in the United States in the 1930s. The men who left their families to ride the rails and form a new culture with their own habits and code of conduct and their own language, their own symbolic language of hieroglyphics was only about 1% less weird than I made it in the book. It is not true that the hobos left this planet for the planet Uranus on Pearl Harbor Day, 1941, because they were tired of this world and they also loved dumb, corny, dirty jokes. That is not true, but most everything that was in the books and that I did translated into my appearances on The Daily Show with John Stewart is founded on the very strange and increasingly impossible truth that surrounds us all.
What’s your favorite conspiracy theory?
Oh, I’m fascinated constantly by this one theory that was brought to my knowledge by the author Jon Ronson. He wrote about David Eick who’s a former British television sports reporter, a sports presenter as they say in British television, who briefly decided he was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Became very controversial. Then he came back and said, “I’m so sorry. I’m not the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I was going through a very difficult time in my life and I apologize for that. The reality is that the world is controlled by humanoid reptiles from another dimension who wear human skin and control every world government and the major world banks and also control most of entertainment.” He is a contemporary conspiracy theorist who has some of the anti-elitism conspiracy theories of an Alex Jones for example with the science fiction element that Queen Elizabeth the II and George Bush, all the Bush family and every other world leader is secretly a humanoid reptile wearing a human suit. This accusation has led many to accuse David Eick of being anti-Semitic, because this idea that the world governments and banks is controlled by a secretive cabal of semi-human monsters is of course completely consistent with most insane, anti-Semitic world conspiracies. And David Eick then finds himself in the strange position of having to explain to his critics, “No, I am not anti-Semitic. I truly believe… These humanoid reptiles are not a metaphor for Judaism.”
It’s what he actually believes! Wow. Do you believe in any weird conspiracy theories or do you mostly like to observe it and break it down and find the comedy in it?
First of all, I don’t really believe in conspiracies. People are far too selfish, individually selfish, to really form the kind of collect cabals that would be required to run the world secretly. I think there is various overlapping of mutual motives and goals. Now I am truly starting to sound like a late-night AM talk show host or even better, podcaster. The truth of the matter is, that for all of the trappings of the Secret Society that I use to distract the general public from what actually goes on in that basement room… what actually goes on in that basement room is simply a comedy show and indeed in many ways a comedy show that is far more straightforward and down to earth and personal than anything that I’ve ever done in comedy before.
Oh wow, that’s enticing.
Yeah, well it’s stuff that I’ve been performing outside on the road, and in various public spaces that I developed in that basement. But what I discovered in that basement after I had hung essentially all of the baroque drapery of a secret society around the show, what that allowed me to do was simply, within the basement, to just tell funny stories and tell basic jokes that I enjoy telling and was drawing from my own life and my own weird experience as a famous, minor television personality and mustached man of about the age 43. The truth is, all of my comedy had prior to… it had changed and was becoming more personal as I approached what I thought was going to be the end of the world. Most of it however was still based on these fabulous lies and when I discovered once I locked the doors of the basement and trapped a hundred people in the room with me and swore them to secrecy was that I could just tell the truth.
Do you find it uncomfortable to be more yourself or is more freeing and inspiring?
No, it’s been incredibly liberating to be able to perform as myself and to just be able to tell stories as myself, not as the resident expert deranged millionaire, but to be more the plain John Hodgman who exists on this planet just like you. Or who you might hear, for example, in conversation on my Judge John Hodgman podcast, or if you were to corner me on the street, or now traveling the country doing standup. It’s me. Now that’s isn’t to say that I would not necessarily on stage take off all my clothes and then get dressed up and do 20 minutes as Ayn Rand, the philosopher and novelist. I mean, that persona may emerge at any moment. Truthfully any hour of the day that might happen. I find that Ayn Rand has been occupying my thoughts more and more and then emerging only when I get agitated or confused, kind of like objectivist Hulk. But even that, to literally disrobe and to be completely, well semi-completely nude on stage before I get into that Ayn Rand dress is a different kind of liberation. That was something that was developed in that basement of secret. It made me appreciate that, you know, I could do anything that I want.
So, I was going to ask you about Judge John Hodgman. Do you still have new episodes still coming out?
Oh yeah. We just passed our four-year anniversary. I believe episodes 186 and 187 are due out over the next two weeks and we have no plans to stop and indeed we’re going to be doing a live Judge Hodgman at The San Francisco Sketchfest the first weekend of February.
Are these actually real people with real cases?
Oh yes. Absolutely. We invite people to submit their disputes, whether they are philosophically grand, such as “Does a machine gun qualify as a robot?” That was one of our earliest cases. To the much more mundane such as the couple where an American woman and a German guy who had decide to move to Berlin and live in Berlin and she very much wanted to get an air conditioner for the summer and apparently it’s very unusual for someone to have an air conditioner in Berlin. He was opposed to the idea. This is the great thing about ordinary people is that they’re all extraordinary once you start talking to them. We soon learned that his real objection to having an air conditioner is that in Germany there is a very real, though not often spoken of, superstition about drafts and moving air. That it will cause you to fall ill. And that was called Zuglufttie. It really derives from a much older superstition that moving air carries demons. This guy thought on some level that if he had an air conditioner in the room that he was going to get possessed by the AC demon or something.
So whose favor did you rule in?
I ruled in his favor. Because even though he’s scared of fan demons, he does know Berlin in the summer time better than she does. I tend to feel that people who travel abroad should immerse themselves in that culture rather than trying to import and install their own culture into the windows of their new apartment.
What makes you feel like you’re a fair judge? What makes you qualified for the position?
Oh, I know how people should live and what they should do with their time.
So, back to the conspiracy theories, I’d love to hear your thoughts… Do you think Tupac is alive? Do you think he’s coming back like people claim?
I think Tupac and Andy Kauffman are sharing an apartment together in Omaha, Nebraska and they just got cable Internet. Tupac stopped using the Internet in 1994 and Andy never saw it and those guys are going down some serious Reddit rabbit holes right now. And when they come out of them, they’re going to reemerge, probably with a podcast.
Maybe you can be one of their first guests.
It’s going to be called “Tupacandy.”
Thank you so much for talking to me. Is there anything you’d like to add about Secret Society?
As much as people are concerned that it’s a weird cult, that I control every aspect of the member’s lives, that I give them new names, like Moxie Super Sauce or Electricity Battle Star Pegasus, those people wanted new names. I’m not going to give new names to anyone who doesn’t want them. Nor am I going to ask them to dress in robes, unless they really want to. And ultimately what people will see when they come to “The Secret Society Meeting and Public Holiday Spectacle” that will occur at the location that I cannot contractually name to you right now, but is available for your perusal at bit.ly/notacult, is that it’s going to be a fun comedy show with a number of surprise guests, strange twists and turns and an extraordinarily grand setting and everyone who comes will be officially initiated into Secret Society and will know about future meetings as they develop.
Monique Madrid is a comedian/writer/actor living in Los Angeles.